“…Mother behold your son, son behold your mother.” (Jn 19:26,27)
Motherhood is a difficult idea to grapple with. This is because mothers are by nature and definition relational. They are considered mothers only in their relationship with their children. Nature keeps mother and child so close as to be almost indistinct as individuals through the first nine or so months of life. Their bodies are made for each other. During pregnancy, they share the same food, blood and oxygen. After birth, nature places the child at the mother’s breast for nourishment. The newborn’s eyes can see only far enough to make eye contact with the mother. The newborn’s ears can clearly hear the beating of the mother’s heart and the high tones of the female voice. Nature has even made a woman’s skin smoother than her husband’s, the better to nestle with the sensitive skin of a baby. The mother, body and soul, points beyond herself, to her child. Yet as close as nature keeps us to our mothers, they remain mysterious to their children. In the words of G.K. Chesterton “A thing can sometimes be too close to be seen.”
In His Majesty’s Service
As the Mother of God, Mary is the mother par excellence. So, as all mothers are elusive, she will be more so. As all mothers give of themselves, she will give even more. As all mothers point beyond themselves, Mary will to a much greater degree. A true mother, Mary considers none of her glories her own. After all, she points out, she is only doing God’s bidding: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Even when she recognizes her superior gifts, she recognizes that they are gifts: “All generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). For her part Mary’s own soul “magnifies” not herself but “the Lord” (Lk 1:46). Since Mary always deflects attention away from herself, we must look to the One she points us to in order to understand her better.
From the Top
To understand the Mother of God, we must begin with God. All Marian devotion must begin with solid theology and a firm faith based on the Creed. All that Mary does, and all that she is, flows from her relationship with God and her cooperation with His divine plan. She is His mother. She is His spouse. She is His daughter. She is His handmaid. This is the truth as shocking as it may sound.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reveals the name of God. He commands His disciples to baptise “in the name” of the Blessed Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Notice that Jesus speaks of these as a single name. A person’s name is equivalent to their identity. God’s name reveals who God is from all eternity. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Fatherhood and sonship are not earthly familial roles attributed to God. Rather, the earthly roles of father and son are living metaphors for something divine and eternal. God Himself is a communion of persons. Saint John Paul II expressed this well: “God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family which is love.” From eternity, God alone possesses the essential attributes of a family, and the Trinity alone possesses them in their perfection. Earthly households have these attributes but imperfectly.
Down to Earth
God’s transcendence does not leave creation completely without a clue. Creation tells us something about its creator the same way a work of art reveals something of the character of the artist. So we can learn more about God by observing what He does. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us that, “God’s work reveals who He is in Himself; the mystery of His inmost being enlightens our understanding of all His works” (#236). As we pointed out in an earlier post, God reveals Himself in the pages of the New Testament (NT) but He also left “traces…in His revelation throughout the Old Testament (OT)” (CCC #237). Saint Augustine tells us that the New Testament is concealed in the Old and the Old is revealed in the New. All of history was the world’s preparation for the moment when the Word was made flesh, when God became a human child in the womb of a young virgin from Nazareth.
When we read the Scriptures, we must do so on two levels at once. We read it in a literal sense and also in a spiritual sense as we seek what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us through the words
Read Between the Lines
When we read through Scripture, we see God revealing Himself and His will to us. The Scripture is given “for our salvation” (Dei Verbum, #11). When we read the Scriptures, we must do so on two levels at once. We read it in a literal sense and also in a spiritual sense as we seek what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us through the words (CCC #115-19). This is the way Jesus read the scriptures. He referred to Jonah (Mt 12:39), Solomon (Mt 12:42), the temple (Jn 2:19) and the bronze serpent (Jn 3:14) as “signs that prefigured Him. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus instructed his disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them what referred to Him in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). After this spiritual reading of the OT, we are told that the disciples’ hearts burned within them. Why did this happen? It is because God had properly laid the blocks of persons and institutions in history in such a way that they would best prepare us for the coming of Christ and the glories of His kingdom.
Type, Type, Typology
What Jesus did with the personages and events he pointed out to the disciples is what we call “types”. A type is a real person, place, thing or event in the OT that foreshadows something greater in the NT. The study of Christ’s foreshadowing in the OT is what we call “typology”. Typology unveils more than the person of Christ; it also tells us about heaven, the Church, the Apostles, the Eucharist, the places of Jesus’ birth and death and the person of Jesus’ mother.
From the first Christians we learn that the Jerusalem temple foreshadowed the heavenly dwelling of the saints in glory (2 Cor 5:1-2; Rev 12:9-22); Israel prefigures the Church (Gal 6:16); the twelve OT patriarchs prefigure the twelve New Covenant Apostles (Lk 22:30); and that the ark of the covenant was a type of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Rev 11:19; 12:1-6, 13-17). There are other types implicitly discussed in the NT. Many are implicit and obvious. Marian types, for instance, abound in the OT. She is prefigured in Eve, the mother of all the living; in Sarah, the wife of Abraham who conceived a child miraculously; in the queen mother of Israel’s monarch who interceded with the king on behalf of the people of the land; and in many other places in other ways. So just as the events and the persons of the OT find their fulfilment in Jesus, so too other persons associated with salvation history point to Mary His mother.
From Old to New Covenant
God fulfilled His mission of saving humanity in Christ. He established a new covenant to replace the old one He made with Israel. A covenant is a sacred kinship bond based on a solemn oath that brings someone into a family relationship with another person or tribe. God made a series of covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. They all failed because these men were unfaithful and sinful. Scriptures lead us to believe that only God keeps His covenant promises (Deut 7:9; Neh 1:5). How then could humanity fulfil their end of a covenant in a way that would last forever? This would require a man to be sinless and as constant as God. God became man in Jesus Christ, and He established the covenant by which we become part of his family: the family of God.
The new covenant in Christ’s blood (Lk 22:20) is more than mere fellowship with God. “God in His deepest mystery is a family.” God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Christians are drawn up into the life of that family. In baptism, we are identified with Christ and baptised in the Trinitarian name of God; we take on His family name, and thus become sons and daughters in the Son. We are taken up into the very life of the Trinity, where we may live in love forever.
St Alphonsus Liguori tells us that “By reconciling us with God Jesus made Himself the Father of souls in the law of grace”. And if Jesus is Father of souls, Mary is their mother, “For she, by giving us Jesus, gave us true life. And by offering the life of her Son on Mount Calvary for our salvation, she brought us forth to the life of grace.
Behold Your Mother
God’s covenant family is perfect, lacking nothing. The Church looks to God as Father, Jesus as Brother and heaven as home. What’s missing here? In truth, nothing. But every family needs a mother; only Christ could choose His own, and He chose Mary providentially for His entire covenantal family. Now everything He has He shares with us. His divine life is ours; His home is our home; His father is our Father; His brothers are our brothers; and His mother is our mother too. This is why as He hung on the cross, he looked down and saw His mother and the disciple he loved (who represents all his faithful followers) standing there. Then he gave us His parting gift, “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:26,27). St Alphonsus Liguori tells us that “By reconciling us with God Jesus made Himself the Father of souls in the law of grace”. And if Jesus is Father of souls, Mary is their mother, “For she, by giving us Jesus, gave us true life. And by offering the life of her Son on Mount Calvary for our salvation, she brought us forth to the life of grace.” The familial ties that binds Jesus and Mary made them co-sufferer in the Passion. St Augustine tells us, “The cross and nails of the Son were also those of His Mother; with Christ crucified the Mother was also crucified.” This makes sense when we reflect on the words of St Paul when he says, “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:16,17 New American Bible). Mary was the first to experience the pain of being united with Christ. Our incorporation into God’s household means that we share his glory only after we have experienced His passion. Jesus provides us with a model in His Mother when he says, “Behold your Mother”.
A House is not a Home
A family is incomplete without a loving mother. Scott Hahn says that the breakaway Christian churches that diminish Mary’s role inevitably end up feeling like a bachelor’s apartment: masculine to a fault; orderly but not homely; functional and productive – but with little sense of beauty and poetry. Yet all of scriptures, all the types, all creation and our deepest human needs tell us that no family should be that way – and certainly not the covenant family of God. The apostles knew this, and that is why they were gathered along with Mary in Jerusalem at Pentecost. The early generations of Christians knew that. That is why they painted her image in their catacombs and dedicated their churches to her. A true mother, she is usually portrayed pointing to her Son but looking out toward the viewers, her other children. She cared for her Son even as He has commended us to her care and she lovingly draws us together to Him.